Thursday, 30 September 2021

For All Mankind: Season 2

1983. NASA is running away with the Space Race. It has a permanently-manned lunar outpost, Jamestown, and an entire fleet of space shuttles to service installations in orbit. It is already developing a second-generation, nuclear-powered shuttle called Pathfinder and has its eyes set firmly on Mars. However, mixed support in Congress threatens to derail its Martian ambitions and escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, including armed confrontations over contested lithium mining sites on the moon, put the safety of the entire world in doubt. The astronauts of NASA and their families find themselves on the front line of what could be the start of World War III, or the beginning of a new, peaceful age of cooperation.

For All Mankind's journey through an alternate history of the 20th and 21st centuries continues in the second of seven planned seasons (a third has already wrapped filming and should air in 2022). A ten-year time jump between seasons brings us almost to a Utopian view of the 1980s, where technology is more advanced than it really was thanks to the advances of America's hyper-charged space programme. Electric cars are becoming commonplace, the Columbia-class space shuttle has already been in service for years, and a combination of extremely lucrative patents and the heartfelt support of President Reagan means NASA has funds and resources it couldn't even dream of in reality. It's a giddy view of the Space Race which masks deeper problems.

As in reality, the growing gulf in technology and capability between the rapidly-advancing United States and the stagnating Soviet Union is creating renewed, dangerous tensions on Earth, in orbit and on the moon. The US military is getting more and more involved with the space programme, advocating putting weapons on shuttles and on the moon, and using the "high ground" of orbital space to overcome the USSR's ability to launch a nuclear first strike or respond in kind to one. Like Battlestar Galactica before it, For All Mankind dips into an interesting place where the military, ethical, scientific and political ramifications of events overlap, throwing up thorny dilemmas where each perspective makes valid points so it's hard to entirely come down on one side or another. For All Mankind also introduces more Russian characters and has the USA making some horrendous misjudgements, meaning the Soviet perspective is also more readily understood.

As with the first year, For All Mankind roots the fascination of its alternate history (where John Lennon survived his assassination attempt, but Pope John Paul II did not) in compelling character arcs. Our primary POV characters are once again the Baldwin family, astronaut Ed now working as the head of the astronaut programme at NASA and his wife Karen having taken over the Outpost, the old astronaut drinking ground which has now become a tourist trap. Recovering from their death of their son Shane in the first season, they have adopted a Vietnamese orphan, Kelly. During the season Ed makes the decision to return to space and Kelly decides to apply to join the US Navy and find her birth parents, all decisions which stress out Karen, leading her to make some questionable choices.

A second major story arc follows the ongoing issues of the family Stevens. Gordo has left front-line space service after his mini-breakdown in Season 1, and now works as a public speaker and in the back office. An opportunity to return to Jamestown forces him to confront his demons. His now ex-wife Tracy has become the public face of the space programme, to the consternation of fellow astronauts who think she's putting more effort into appearing on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show than on her actual job. Their sons have taken dramatically differing career paths, one living at home with his father and the other joining the US military.

Further storylines follow retiring astronaut Ellen, who takes over as a senior administrator at NASA and quickly wins the admiration and wholehearted political support of President Reagan and the Republican Party, to her consternation as a closeted lesbian. However, she also believes her growing political profile will help get NASA and humanity to Mars. Margo continues in her role as a senior NASA figure, but her loneliness leads her to making some potentially dangerous decisions. Subplots follow Aleida, the young girl dreaming of the stars in the first season, as she joins NASA as an engineer; Molly Cobb's health after she ill-advisedly sustains a massive dose of radiation during a solar storm; and a Russian cosmonaut trying to defect to the United States via their moonbase.

The second season is more serialised than the first, which at times felt almost like an anthology series as it spanned four years and various topics including the recruitment of female astronauts, the intersection of civil rights and the space programme, and the psychological impact of space travel. The second season is instead focused around a pivotal period of a few months. This is good in that the season feels more of a piece and more epic, but it also strains the show's ability to give everyone a compelling story arc. In particular, Karen feels a little lost in the mix and Aleida's thread starts and stops a lot, in contrast to the much meatier and more satisfying storyline for the Stevens, Ed and the crew of Jamestown.

The series also feels like it's lost its scientific credentials, or at least strained them. In real life, the space shuttle could not fly to the moon and certainly couldn't land after returning (the shuttle would not survive re-entry at the speeds reached on lunar return mission). Given there's only a couple of shots of the shuttle flying to the moon and other spacecraft are available (including upgraded Apollos and the spectacular Sea Dragon seen in the Season 1 finale and throughout Season 2), it's odd why they insist on depicting it as a lunar return vehicle.

Season 2 also deals with the realities of characters ageing by...not bothering to depict them. The characters were already older than the actors playing them by some years in Season 1, so extending that by another decade in Season 2 with no effort to make up the actors is sometimes distractingly weird (with a 35-year-old actress playing a 53-year old character supposedly having an affair with a 20-ish-year-old played by an actor in his mid-twenties, making that storyline not land at all the way it was supposed to). It's only a few cases of child actors being swapped out for newcomers where it feels that any time has passed at all. I'm assuming that for Season 3, which picks up twelve years after the end of Season 2, they'll have no choice but to age up the characters more convincingly.

Season 2 also has a bit of a mid-season dip into melodrama. Kelly looking for her birth parents, the Stevens' marriage woes and Karen's business and personal decisions aren't bad storylines per se, but they feel a bit too soap-opera-ish and divorced from the big-picture storylines elsewhere, in contrast to say Ellen's personal storyline which dovetails superbly into the grander political picture.

Still, if things dip a little in the middle, they pick up momentum towards the end. The final two episodes form a season finale as outrageously good as any other show's in the last decade, packed with human drama, heroism and political brinksmanship, although we could have maybe done without the BSG trope of allies aiming handguns at one another whilst making speeches, and everyone being just fine with that five minutes later. The finale transitions us, via a surprisingly well-judged use of Nirvana, into the 1990s and another shift in geopolitical fortunes which should give us a very interesting third season.

For All Mankind's (****½) second season starts well, dips in the middle, but roars back strong at the end with an outstanding run of episodes that make the wait for Season 3 feel very interminable indeed. The season is available now worldwide on Apple TV.

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